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Veleno Guitars

Shiny Metal (Rare) Birds
 
Shiny Metal (Rare) Birds

Throughout the years luthiers have built guitars out of a lot of exotic materials, from Torres’ paper mache acoustics to Danelectro’s masonite to Dan Armstrong’s lucite guitars to Steinberger’s all-graphite headless wonders. While all of these instruments are absolutely cool, few have the magic of those shiny metal guitars with bird-like headstocks and gleaming ruby eye crafted of aluminum named Veleno. Veleno guitars are the essence of glam, perfect icons of the decadence of the Me Decade.

And, as it turns out, quite rare. To learn their story we have to travel back in time to those innocent days of 1966, or, indeed even back further, to the formative years of a young machinist by the name of John Veleno.

The Rhythm Masters
John Veleno was born in 1934 and began studying guitar in Massachusetts in around 1958, eventually playing part-time in a rock and country band called the Rhythm Masters. From 1961 to ’62 he worked as a guitar teacher at the studio where he had been taking lessons. As most of us know, music teaching hardly proved to be a reliable source of income, so during the day Veleno pursued a trade as a machinist. John had completed his apprenticeship in 1956 and had held down his day job until 1963, when his wife’s health condition caused him to relocate to Florida. Two days after his arrival in the Sunshine State, he was offered a job in a machine shop in St. Petersburg.

Aluminum
Once in St. Petersburg, Veleno’ job at the Universal Machine Company was to make aluminum boxes which were designed to contain the electronic components used on the rockets launched from Cape Canaveral. These boxes were of various shapes and had to be both strong and lightweight. The most common way to make them was by taking a 35 pound billet of solid aluminum and cutting it down to a rib-reinforced box of around 11/2 to 3 pounds in weight. It was this background in working with aluminum which would eventually give birth to Veleno’s unique guitar designs.

While working by day at the machine shop, Mr. Veleno continued to give guitar lessons in his off-hours. To do this he obtained an occupational license allowing him to teach guitar in his home. To advertise his guitar lessons, he wanted to put up a sign, however, to his dismay he discovered that local ordinances only allowed him to put a one foot by one foot sign attached to the outside of his house, hardly something that would catch the attention of people passing by.

The guitar mailbox
Veleno thought about it and decided to make a guitar-shaped mailbox out of aluminum to sit at the street curb shaped like a guitar. This was not technically speaking a “sign” and therefore he could draw attention to the sign on his house with the mailbox. Since he was an aluminum worker, Veleno naturally decided to machine the mailbox stand out of aluminum.

As it turned out, the fellow who was Veleno’s aluminum supplier was also a guitar player, and while they were talking, the supplier asked: “Why make a just a guitar-shaped mailbox out of aluminum? Why not make a guitar out of aluminum?” A little light went off in Veleno’s head, and it was only a matter of time until Veleno aluminum guitars came into being.

Prototype
Veleno began to hand-make his first guitar in 1966, working at home, constantly changing the design to overcome problems as he progressed. Finally, in 1967, it was complete.

Since he was not particularly well connected with the local music scene, the only way Veleno could think of to market his new guitar was to take it around to area niteclubs. Like many a visionary before him, all Veleno received from the local musicians was laughs and insults. Dispirited, the aluminum guitar went into the closet to collect dust, and John Veleno thought his guitar-making career was over.

However, as fate would have it, in around 1970, Veleno ran into his old friend the aluminum supplier, who asked if he had ever built that aluminum guitar. Veleno reluctantly admitted that he had. The aluminum supplier asked to look at it and got very excited when he saw the design. He took John Veleno and his aluminum guitar to a local niteclub called the Cheshire Cat where the guitarist in the band playing that evening loved Veleno’s guitar. They stayed at the club until 1 or 2 AM in the morning, after which Veleno’s friend took him to the south side of St. Petersburg, not the nicest neighborhood in town at the time.

Clothes for the stars
Veleno recalls that night with amusement. “My friend took me to this house that looked like a haunted house. The grass hadn’t been cut for ages. It was about 18″ high! The house had paint peeling off it. A real horror house. We went into an apartment in the house where I was introduced to a couple named Michael and Tony, I forget their last names. Michael and Tony made costumes for rock stars and they were completely surrounded by racks and racks of wild clothes and shoes with 5″ soles on them. They supplied some of the clothes Sonny and Cher were wearing for their act at the time. I remember that Michael and Tony had just completed a wardrobe for Jimi Hendrix. I remember the Hendrix connection because this was just about the time that Hendrix died.”

Veleno’s aluminum guitar was shown to Michael, who was also excited by it and offered to show Veleno how to sell his idea. He insisted the only way was to get guitar players to see it, and that he could show Veleno how to get into the big rock shows which were frequently visiting the area coliseum at the time.

James Gang
“Remember this was around 1970, before there was so much security,” muses Veleno. “Michael took me to the first show, which was the James Gang, I believe. I didn’t know anyone’s names in the band at the time. Michael’s suggested technique was to show up carrying a guitar case in the afternoon, between 1 and 3 PM. No one ever stopped someone entering backstage with a guitar case at that time of day. The idea was then to get near the stage during the soundcheck, take out the aluminum guitar and begin to polish it. Michael assured me that there was no way that the guitar player wouldn’t come over to look at it. He was right. It worked like a charm for years.”

“By the way,” adds Veleno, “later on I would always go to the record store before a band was coming to town so I could find out the names of the band members and see their pictures before I showed up!”

The other Santana
The first group to really take a look at Veleno’s guitar was led by Jorge Santana in either 1970 or 1971. “I was really excited that I was going to see Santana, but then I found out it was actually Carlos’ brother,” recalls Veleno with a self-deprecating chuckle. Veleno followed the pattern, going in for the soundcheck, pulling out the guitar and polishing it. Jorge Santana couldn’t resist his curiosity and came over to try the guitar. He liked it so much, he took it out and used it on his first three songs that night. His manager was furious, Veleno remembers, telling Jorge that he should stick to the guitar he was familiar with for the show, but Santana was adamant and used the Veleno.

After the show Jorge Santana met with Veleno and offered about a dozen ideas that would improve the design, all of which were incorporated in subsequent guitars.

V headstock
Veleno’s first few prototype guitars had a bird-shaped headstock with six-in-line tuners. One of Jorge Santana’s suggestions had been to change it to a three-and-three arrangement, since it was easier to find the string you wanted to tune while performing onstage. Veleno went home and got his five children around the kitchen table and had a brainstorming session. One of his children suggested using the family’s last name and came up with a “V” design, and that was it. The trademark red corundum ruby set in the middle of the headstock was inspired by Veleno’s first wife’s birthstone. Some of the heads are all chrome, but some (on black necks, especially) were black with a silver V highlight. At least one example is seen in all black with no highlight.

The Veleno Original
The main Veleno guitar design is called the Veleno Original, although several other models appeared over the course of his brief luthier’s career. The Original is sort of an equal double cutaway cross between a Strat and a slab Tele with an aluminum body and a bolt-on aluminum neck. Some differences can be seen in guitar shapes; some are a bit slimmer like a Gibson Les Paul Junior and some are a bit chunkier like a Tele.

Veleno’s necks were cast from Almag 35 aluminum, the most corrosive-resistant alloy available at the time. Veleno came up with his ideal profile and took it to a pattern maker who made a board which allowed casting three necks at a time. Casting was then done at a local foundry.

To come up with the neck profile Veleno studied many popular guitars. He liked the flatter fingerboard radius of Gibson guitars, but he preferred the shallower back of Fenders. He was fortunate to have access to quite a number of people in the neighborhood who had retired from the guitar business, so he was able to consult with them and learn why companies did things. Veleno chose a compromise that combined the Gibson radius with the Fender back. Their designs, of course, had been dictated in part by the necessities of truss rod installation, whereas Veleno, with his warp-proof aluminum neck, was free of such concerns, and could make any shape he liked. Many of Veleno’s necks were coated in a black finish, making them feel more like a conventional neck finish.

Originally the Veleno fingerboard had 21 frets, but this was quickly changed to 22. Frets were seated with a special quick-drying glue. In theory, this design was supposed to allow easy refretting as often as required or desired. Veleno admits that the necks were a little heavy, causing the guitars to be a bit unbalanced, although he tried to compensate by putting three different places to connect the guitar strap so the player could adjust somewhat. Still, this was a design flaw that was never corrected.

Fingerboards could be finished in black with white dots or in chome with white or black dotes. The typical dot pattern on Velenos was an alternating one/two pattern, with three dots at the octave.

The Veleno Original is actually a hollowbody guitar which is carved from two solid blocks of aluminum, 17 pounds of raw material reduced to a pound and a half! The first five or so guitar bodies were actually cast like an automobile engine, but Veleno quickly switched to the method familiar from his job. Veleno bodies are not stamped and have no bends or welds. Backs were removable to allow access to the electronics. The final guitar was 81/2 pounds, lighter than a Gibson Les Paul. The first cast Originals did not have a pickguard, but when John switched to carving he addied a clear plexiglass pickguard to protect the finish.

Colors
The first Veleno bodies were made of 7075 aluminum, but these quickly tarnished and changed color. Veleno switched to 6061 aluminum which was then chrome plated. Eventually, in addition to the most common chrome finish, Velenos were offered in real gold plating, polished aluminum (similar look to chrome plated), plus anodized finishes of blue, red, green, gold and two blacks, ebony and “super finish.” The super finish was a special process which yielded a harder finish that regular anodizing. This availability does not mean that Veleno guitars were necessarily produced in these colors. Chrome was the most common, with a few in gold and at least one in a black finish.

Occasionally Veleno would make his own bridges, although he sometimes used Gibson Tune-o-matics or Guild bridges. He actually preferred the way the Guild bridges adjusted.

Electronics on Veleno guitars were pretty straightforward. Typical controls consisted of two volume and two tone controls, two threeway mini-toggles (off in the middle, coil taps in the up position), and a mini-toggle phase switch. Since the guitars were made of aluminum, they were automatically shielded to reduce feedback.

Pickups
Pickups on the first few guitars were DeArmond humbuckers, but Veleno quickly switched to chrome-covered Gibson humbuckers, when he could get them. When he couldn’t, he sometimes used Guild humbuckers, although he didn’t care that much for their more trebly output. Somewhere between guitar #25 and guitar #50 Veleno was approached by Larry DiMarzio and asked to use his early pickups, which he did, when they were available.

Veleno guitars sold for $600.

At least one gold-plated Veleno Original was built with three DiMarzio pickups. This can be seen on page 95 of Tony Bacon and Paul Day’s The Ultimate Guitar Book (Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1991). This featured three volumes and three tones, three on/off mini-toggles under the knobs, three mini-toggles on the upper bout bass horn and a single mini-toggle on the lower horn.

The first sale
While the Jorge Santana connection was productive in terms of input, it didn’t result in a sale. That would come shortly thereafter when John using the same surreptitous entrance technique went to a T-Rex gig, and made his first sale. Or actually first two sales.

Veleno recounts his meeting with the eccentric Mark Bolan with amusement. “I got into the soundcheck that afternoon,” recalls John, “and started to polish my guitar. Mark Bolen came over to look at the guitar and asked me to go to his motel with him after the show. We went back to his room and he got down on his knees to inspect the guitar. He loved the guitar and said, ‘I want two, one for me and one for my good friend Eric Clapton.’”

“Okay,” said Veleno in a deadpan voice, who had no idea who Eric Clapton was.

“Don’t you know who Eric Clapton is?,” exclaimed Bolen in amazement. “My best friend is the greatest guitarist in the world.”

“No,” replied Veleno, thinking to himself that everyone says his friend is the best guitarist in the world. He’d heard that claim before.

Bolen began rolling around on the floor laughing hysterically. “I can’t believe someone who makes guitars doesn’t know who Eric Clapton is!”

Bolen gave Veleno the shipping address for the guitars, which was in care of Warner Brothers studios in California. “Gee,” thought Veleno, “these guys really are in show business!”

“My daughter Michelle was in college at the time,” adds Veleno, “and when I went home and told her I’d just sold two guitars to T-Rex and Eric Clapton, her awed response was ‘Wow, Eric Clapton is the greatest rock and roll guitarist in the world!’ I realized Bolin had been right. That’s when I figured out that I’d better begin to read up on this stuff.”

Glory days
In those heady days of the early ’70s, between venues in St. Petersburg, Tampa and Lakeland, there were as many as 57 concerts a year, which kept Veleno busy polishing his guitars.

John remembers showing one of his guitars to Gregg Allman. He was backstage and Allman’s manager came over and opened the case. “Gregg has to see this. Close it up and we’ll show it to him after he cleans up.”
After the show Allman, tired and sweaty, showered and dressed, poured a drink and came to look into the guitar case. As he looked inside he exclaimed, “Oh my God, a motorcycle in a guitar case!” He bought the guitar.

Later Veleno recalls selling another one to Sonny Bono of Sonny and Cher. They were playing in Florida. John recalls that they were using the Playboy jet and took their guitarist, Dan Fergusson, and a couple other members of the band along to lead things, filling in the rest of performers with local union pick-up musicians. Veleno showed one of his guitars to Fergusson, who wanted it, but didn’t have the money right then. Fergusson gave John a backstage pass and asked him to return that night. John was so excited about making a sale, he forgot to take the pass with him.

Well, that night he arrived at about quarter to eight, just before the show. He didn’t have his pass, but he’d dressed up like an important person. Two big burly security cops stood in front of the backstage door. Veleno just tucked his guitar case up under his arm, barged right through the crowd, went right through the guards, and grabbed the door knob muttering worriedly, “Oh, man, I’m late for the show.” He got in and got paid for the guitar!

A few weeks later he got a call from Sonny Bono’s manager, ordering another one for Bono. Later he recalls hearing that, after Cher had married Gregg Allman, Bono sold his Veleno guitar, but John doesn’t know if it was because Allman also had one…

Standardization
Word began to get around the rock world and before long Veleno began getting more and more calls from famous rock guitarists. The problem was that most of them wanted custom jobs, and would always say, “Now, here’s what I want you to do with it,” John recalls. Unfortunately, Veleno Guitars was just a two-man operation by this time and the design depended on making “cut and dry,” standardized guitars, so Veleno could not accommodate all the custom requests. The callers would become insistent, and would invariably use the line to Veleno, “Do you know who I am?” Of course, the joke was that John mostly didn’t know who they were!

Sometimes players had reservations about Veleno for curious reasons. Johnny Winter, interviewed in the July 1974 Guitar Player talked about his current gear: “I’ve also got a really strange, all-metal guitar made by John Veleno. It’s got the thinnest neck in the world. Since it’s solid metal, you don’t have to worry about it warping. But I’m not quite used to it. The neck’s a little too thin. The worst part about it is that the neck is silver, and it’s got little black dots on it, and when the spotlight is shining on the neck I really can’t see the dots, so I haven’t been using it on stage. But he makes pretty nice guitars. If I played it, and got used to it, I think it’d be a real nice guitar to play.”

The players
Who else played Velenos? During the ’70s some significant artists were seen playing Veleno aluminum guitars. We know that Mark Bolan, Eric Clapton and others owned Velenos. Jorge Santana eventually bought one. Other well-known guitarists who played Velenos included Pete Haycock of the Climax Blues Band (a gold Veleno can be seen on the cover of their Gold Plated lp), Alvin Lee of Ten Years After, Ronnie Montrose, then of the Edgar Winter Group, Martin Barre of Jethro Tull, Ace Frehley of Kiss, Dave Peverett of Foghat, and Mark Farner of Grand Funk Railroad. One of the last appearances of a Veleno was on the album cover of Panorama by the Cars. Not all of these folks purchased their guitars directly from John.

Who did purchase new guitars from Veleno? Veleno did not keep detailed records of everyone who bought his guitars from him, but a partial list in his scrapbook reveals some interesting names. The list includes Eric Clapton (#2), Mark Bolan (#3), Mark Farner (#4), Lou Reed (#5), Gregg Allman (#6), Ray Manet of Rare Earth (#7), Dave Peverett (#8), Dan Fergusson (#9), Sonny Bono (#10), Pete Haycock (#11), Ronnie Montrose (#12), Jeff Lynne of ELO (#13), Miami-area guitarist Johnny Olafson (#14), Terry Blankenship of Damon (#18), John Stone of Chocolate and Vanilla (#19), Robert Bond of the Texas band Rise (#21) and Mark Klyce of Love Date (#58). Clearly the celebrity exposure early-on had its effect down the guitar pecking order later.

Reportedly, several guitars were made for Ronnie Montrose with thicker necks reminiscent of late ’50s Gibsons. The normal Veleno neck is quite thin, reflecting necks like Kapa and Hagstrom in the ’60s and anticipating tastes of the late ’80s.

Veleno recalls that shortly after Jeff Lynne bought his Veleno guitar Electric Light Orchestra appeared on a New Years Day celebration television program during which ELO performed on the Thames river in London. There, shining brightly, was the Veleno Original for the world to admire.

B.B. and the Traveler
In addition to the Original, Veleno also offered a down-sized Traveler guitar, which was only 271/4″ long, 81/2″ wide, with 24 frets, tuned to a “G” tuning, a third above a normal tuning. In essence, this was a one-pickup terz guitar.

Actually, the idea for this guitar came from none other than B.B. King! One night B.B. was performing in the area and John went backstage to meet him after the show. The line was a mile long, but B.B. told his people to let them all in. He’d just say “Hi” to each one. John was in the middle of the line, and when he finally got up to King and identified himself, King asked him if he could do a favor. King asked him to go to the back of the line again so they could talk more. “It won’t take long, I’m just going to say ‘Hi’ to these folks and sign some autographs.”

Well, at around 3:30 in the morning Veleno wryly remarks that musician’s don’t go to jobs like everyone else, they work all night and sleep all day Veleno came up again. King was sitting in a chair. He stuck out his hands and said he wanted a guitar about this long. Veleno pulled out something he had with him and measured it. King explained. He did a lot of travelling, including on planes. When he travelled, he was always getting his best ideas for songs or for guitar licks, but he couldn’t do anything about it. He couldn’t whip out a guitar while sitting on a plane. But, if he had a small one, he could just take it out and work out his ideas. “I’d call it my Travelling Companion,” King concluded.

Veleno went home and developed the Traveler, named in honor of B.B. King. The first one was supposed to be for King, but Veleno had forgotten to get an address or telephone number, and he didn’t know how to get in touch with King. So, B.B. never got his Travelling Companion. Nevertheless, B.B. did come up with the idea for that guitar. Mark Farner of Grand Funk Railroad helped John develop the final Traveler guitar design, which was an unusual shape that looked something like a mask out of a Buck Rogers episode. The edges were horizontal with deep extended cutaway horns, a three-segment rounded lower bout. The Traveler had a small squared-off three-and-three head, a 24-fret fingerboard (no markers), a single middle pickup, combined compensated bridge/tailpiece like on early Gibsons, a volume on the lower wing, tone back near the bridge, and a tone toggle on the upper horn.

Very, very few of these were ever produced. John recalls setting up around 10 to 12 Travelers for production, however, he made only one or two himself. One was sold to Mark Farner. The remainder of the leftover parts were given to John’s son Chris, who assembled some more. The total tally should be no more than a dozen at most.

The bass
Rarest of the rare of Veleno’s creations was one electric bass guitar which he built. He can’t recall who ordered it, but it was part of a guitar and bass set. The fellow who bought them said in his will he was going to leave the guitar to the Smithsonian Institute museum because the Veleno guitar was an “All-American original.” He got that right.

Ankh
The final two Veleno guitars were made for Todd Rundgren in 1977, the last Velenos made by John himself. These were duplicate, atypical “custom-made” guitars shaped like an “ankh,” the ancient Egyptian mystical symbol, or as Veleno put it, an “ox.” These had hollow round-rimmed bodies with a straight cross or bar perpendicular to the neck. These had a bridge humbucker and a single-coil pickup mounted on the cross bar, with three controls for volume and tone. Rundgren kept two while performing just in case one had a problem.

These guitars, one of which Rundgren can be seen playing on the cover of the October 1977 Guitar Player, were actually designed by Rundgren himself. Veleno recalls getting a call from Rundgren, who had come up with this exotic guitar shape and had contacted several major guitar companies about making it for him, but they declined. The days of Custom Shops had not yet arrived. So he called John. John said to send him the drawings, which Todd did. John said he could make the guitars and he did.

Veleno recalls Rundgren’s reaction upon receiving the axes: “They look just like my drawings!” Rundgren explained he was surprised because most makers changed things around rather than following exactly what he had in mind. The Veleno ankhs were just as Todd had conceived them.

Veleno’s “cut and dry” aluminum guitars were built from approximately 1970 to 1976 or possibly 1977, except for the Rundgren special-orders. It was at about this time that John experienced some health problems and decided he didn’t want to hear anything more about guitars. “In fact,” says Veleno with a chuckle, “I didn’t even want to talk about guitars for about five years after I quit making them.”

Rare birds
If you have a Veleno guitar, you have something especially rare. Accounts vary, but the outside estimate is that only about 185 total were ever produced by John. It’s possible that the number of John Veleno Veleno originals is some 40 guitars less at around 145. There were around one or two Travelers, one bass and the two ankhs for Rundgren. All were numbered consecutively, so you know where you fall more or less in that chronology. If yours says #5, it’s the fifth one built. When John decided to leave the guitar biz, he turned over enough parts to make maybe 10 or 12 Originals and another 10 or so Travelers to his son Chris, who had helped him build the guitars. Chris did in fact assemble and sell some of these guitars after his father stopped, so there are another 20 or so Velenos which were finished by Chris. An exact tally is not possible, but whatever the total, these are extremely rare birds.

Many people tried copying Veleno guitars, but none were successful. John recalls with amusement getting a call from a guitarmaker in Japan (he doesn’t remember who it was), who said he had a Veleno guitar disassembled in front of him and his engineers gathered around. He wanted to know how Veleno could make this guitar for under $1,000. The caller requested a visit Veleno’s factory to see how production went. Veleno relates with glee his answer: “Well, I rent a garage with a drill press by the day and I assemble the guitars in my living room while watching TV. I have no employees, no overhead, no engineers. That’s my production method and that’s why I can make them for under $1,000.”

Denouement
One final mystery remains, though. In early 1978 a couple of small space ads for Veleno guitars were placed in Guitar Player magazine, almost a year after John ceased making guitars. John is at a loss to explain these, except he does recall that a good friend asked for permission to try his hand at building Veleno aluminum guitars, and John said it was ok with him, believing that his friend could never pull it off. His friend did not, in fact, ever build any Velenos, but it’s possible he did have high hopes and placed the ads. In any case, if you encounter one of these late ads, don’t let that confuse the chronology presented here.

And that’s the Veleno story. John had thought about developing a new guitar. He wanted to develop a carbon graphite neck, which would be lighter and solve the problem of the heavy aluminum neck, which threw the guitars slightly off balance. “That would have been my guitar forever,” muses Veleno. However, it was not to be.

John had no regrets about leaving the guitar business and had no plans to return to it. When I spoke with Mr. Veleno, he really hadn’t played guitar for about 20 years. “I either go all the way or I don’t,” he said.

Well, Veleno certainly did go all the way on his exotic carved aluminum guitars. Even though fewer than 200 were ever made, they were played by some of the biggest names in ’70s guitardom, and stand among the most interesting guitars of their often maligned decade. In fact, in 1996 Lonesome Dave Peverett’s #8 was ensconced in the Hard Rock Cafe in Orlando, Florida, so Veleno figured his guitars had finally arrived. Indeed. If you’re lucky enough to have a Veleno, be sure to keep it well polished.



Ca. 1970-71 Veleno Original #4. Photo courtesy of Barney Roach.

This article originally appeared in VG‘s Jan. ’95 issue.

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